As a nation, we are blessed with a language that is ripe with glorious, old-fashioned words that have, regret-tably, long since passed out of common use.
Gems such as lollygagging (spending time aimlessly), mumbudget (to keep quiet) and conny wabble (a mixture of eggs and brandy). But how on earth do you find one of these expressions when you need it?
In a magical new book, serialised all this week in the Mail, MARK FORSYTH unveils a selection of those obsolete, but oh-so-wonderful words, arranged according to the hours of a typical working day, and the various situations in which you might just find yourself reaching for one…
6am: Waking up
Did you know there is a single Old English word, uhtceare, meaning ‘lying awake before dawn and worrying’? Surprising, isn’t it? But our early ancestors clearly had just as much on their minds as we poor downtrodden mortals of today.
Uht (pronounced oot) is ‘the restless hour before the dawn’, while ceare (pronounced key-are-a) is the Old English word for ‘care and sorrow’ — emotions that have an annoying habit of striking us slap bang in the middle of the uht.
This is the time of day when all those unpaid bills and ill-advised activities of the night before come back to haunt you. The only thing for it is to wait for the day-raw, or the first streak of red in the dawn sky. This is the cue for your expergefactor.
An expergefactor is anything that wakes you up. This may simply be your alarm clock, in which case you need do no more than hit the snooze button.
But it may be a dustman, milkman or delivery van, in which case it is time to lean out of your window and shriek: ‘Damn you all, you expergefactors!’ This ought to keep them quiet for a while — until one of them has found a decent dictionary, at least.
Although your uhtceare is now officially over, you may still not be feeling all that great. Perhaps you have slumbered in the wrong decubitus (sleeping posture) and found that your arm is numb, a condition that the medical world refers to as obdormition?
You may even have a touch of undiagnosed dysania (extreme difficulty in waking up and getting out of bed) or clinomania (an obsessive desire to lie down). This being the case it’s probably time to egrote — a fantastically useful word meaning ‘to feign sickness in order to avoid work’ — better known to us modern folk as ‘throwing a sickie’.
This is how it’s done. Wait until your boss has answered the phone, and then start to whindle. Whindling is defined in a dictionary of 1699 as ‘feigned groaning’. It’s vital to whindle for a while before giving your name in a weak voice.
Explain that you are a sickrel, or invalid, and that work is beyond you. If asked for details, say that you’re floccilating (feverishly plucking at the bedclothes) and jactating (tossing around restlessly).
If your boss insists that you name your actual condition, go for a severe case of hum durgeon.
Unless he or she is fluent in 18th-century slang, they’ll never suspect that the official definition of this splendid phrase is ‘an imaginary illness, in which nothing ails except low spirits’.
Unfortunately, you cannot use hum durgeon every day. Your employer will begin to suspect. Maybe you should simply bow to the inevitable and crawl out of bed.
7am: The bathroom
There, you’ve done it. You now need to grope for your slippers, or to give them their much merrier name: pantofles. These are named after Saint Pantouffle, who appears to have been invented, for no apparent reason, in France in the 15th century.
Once your toes are snugly pantofled, you can stagger off to the bathroom, pausing only to look at the little dent that you have left in your bed. This is known as a staddle.
There are all sorts of lovely phrases with which to dignify the activity often referred to in polite society as answering the call of nature. The Victorians, for example, would visit Mrs Jones, or my aunt, or the coffee shop.
Or, in the 18th century, you might take a voyage to the Spice Islands, these being the most exotic place imaginable, and particularly appropriate (if you will pardon the somewhat explicit nature of this observation) for the morning after a curry.
But whatever your chosen euphemism, you will shortly need to turn your attention to the necessary paperwork. The term bumfodder, although a very obscure word for loo roll, survives, surprisingly, to this very day in a shortened form. Were you aware that our much-used word bumf, meaning piles of unwelcome reading matter, had its origins in the water closet?
Moving swiftly on, the Law of Sod states that you’ll be half way through your shower before you realise that there’s almost no shampoo left in the bottle, so you should duffifie it now.
This is an old Aberdeenshire verb meaning ‘to place a bottle on its side for some time . . . that it may be completely drained of the few drops remaining’.
Believe me, a bit of well-timed duffifying now will save you much annoyance later on.
Other useful early morning phrases with which you might baffle your friends include quobbled (when the skin on the end of your fingers gets wrinkled) and philtrum (the groove between your nose and upper lip, which, if you are a chap, you will need to shave. Who knew it had a name?)
8am: Dressing and breakfast
It is at this point in your day, as you drag on the suit or uniform in which you’re about to spend the next nine hours or so that you’ll probably notice a grinnow.
This is a stain that has not come out in the wash on a garment that you previously thought was clean.
One must be extremely wary of grinnows, however: too many of them and you end up looking like a tatterdemalion. This is a personage of either sex whose clothes are tattered and torn. It is the same as a tatter-wallop, a ragabash, or a flabergudgion; and, given the threadbare state of modern fashion, an eminently useful word.
Once you are snogly geared (as they said in the 18th century), dressed to death (19th century) or simply togged to the bricks (20th-century Harlem), it’s on to the first — and, some say, most important — meal of the day.
If you have time on your hands and a hole in your stomach, there’s nothing quite like a cooked breakfast, of which eggs, fried, boiled, scrambled, coddled, poached, devilled, Benedict or Florentine are likely to form a key component.
But did you know that in the 18th century these early morning delicacies were referred to as cackling farts, on the basis that chickens cackled all the time and eggs came out of the back of them?
A much grander eggy word, however, is vitelline, which means ‘of, or pertaining to, egg yolk’. It is into the vitelline yumminess that you can dip what 18th-century breakfasters would have called ruff peck — better known to us as a rasher of bacon. (Which you must, of course, be careful not to brizzle, or scorch).
All of the above can be washed down with a glass of yarrum (thieves’ slang for milk), or, if you are feeling rakish, a whet. This is an early-morning flagon of white wine, popular in the 18th century but terribly hard to find in these drier, more humdrum times.
9am: Off to work
It is said that every journey begins with a single step. This is tosh. In my experience, every journey begins with a single step followed swiftly by a disorderly retreat once I realise that I’m sporting entirely the wrong attire for the prevailing conditions.
So let us begin with a cellivagous (or ‘heavenward-wandering’) glance. Is the weather, perhaps, looking a bit swale?
This delightfully onomatopoeic term is recorded in the indispens-able A Collection Of English Words, not generally used (1674), where it is defined as: ‘windy, cold, bleak’.
In Scotland they have the equally atmospheric word thwankin, ‘used of clouds, mingling in thick and gloomy succession’.
So if it is swale and the clouds are thwankin, you should probably turn back and grab your umbrella. But no! What am I talking about? What you really need is a bumbershoot.
This is exactly the same as an umbrella, but a much better word. It was first recorded in America in the 1890s, but never made it across the Atlantic — a crying shame, you’ll agree.
If you have no bumbershoot you will have to make do with a Golgotha, the Victorian slang term for a hat, on the basis that, as it says in St Mark’s Gospel: ‘And they bring him unto the place Golgotha, which is, being interpreted, the place of a skull’.
So with a Golgotha on your head, and bumbershoot in hand, you may now hurple onwards, hurple being a verb defined in an 1862 glossary of Leeds dialect as: ‘To shrug up the neck and creep along the streets with a shivering sensation of cold.’
There remains, however, the possibility that you will open the door to discover that the skies are blue, the sun has got his Golgotha on, and it’s a lovely day. (This is unlikely, especially in Leeds — but possible, nonetheless).
In which case you can use almost any word beginning with the letters ‘s’ and ‘w’. Sweltering, swoly, swolten, swole-hot, swullocking and swallocky will all do the job nicely.
That’s it. The door has closed behind you.
And you can join me tomorrow when it will be time to incede (advance majestically) to work.
Extracted from The Horologicon by Mark Forsyth, to be published by Icon Books on Thursday at £12.99.
© 2012 Mark Forsyth. To order a copy for £10.99 (incl P&P) call 0843 382 0000.